On December 8, a modest local newspaper, the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, published a story that ended up going viral, bouncing from Reddit to more than 220 other sites. It caused such buzz that even Snopes checked it out.
The story was about a town council meeting in Woodland, a North Carolina town with just over 800 residents. The council was considering whether to make a zoning change to a piece of land just outside town, to allow a solar farm to be built there. It would have been the fourth solar farm permitted around the town.
Solar companies are converging on Woodland because it is located next to an electrical substation that allows them to feed solar energy into the grid. The more that solar companies can cut down on energy transmission, the cheaper they can sell their electricity, so building next to substations cuts costs.
At the meeting, some Woodland residents had, er, colorful things to say about the danger of solar panels. A "retired Northampton science teacher" worried that panels would prevent photosynthesis in the area, harming local vegetation. She also noted the high rate of cancer deaths in the area, "saying no one could tell her that solar panels didn’t cause cancer."
"People come with hidden agendas," she said. "Until we can find if anything is going to damage this community, we shouldn’t sign any paper."
Woodlander Bobby Mann worried that solar panels "would suck up all the energy from the sun and businesses would not come to Woodland."
The story found its way to the snarkosphere and generated a torrent of mockery as far away as Australia. Then there were stories about the stories. Finally, the cycle reached its inevitable conclusion with Slate's Eric Holthaus and Mother Jones's Kevin Drum scolding the original mockers for their cultural elitism.
And so, with the internet's usual disorienting speed, this odd episode will disappear down the memory hole. Before it does, though, we should pause a moment and see if there's anything we can learn from it.
What's the deal with Woodland?
Woodland is in northeast* North Carolina, about 30 miles east of I-95. It's in a rural area, about two hours northeast of Raleigh-Durham and two hours south of Richmond, Virginia.
Uncharacteristically for the increasingly red state, Woodland is in North Carolina's solidly Democratic (as in, Democratic since the 1880s) first congressional district.
It is an unusually poor town in an unusually poor zip code:
Unemployment well above both the national and state averages.* And most residents have a high school education or less (40 percent dropped out of high school):
The zip code containing Woodland has a "disproportionately large" population of middle-aged (45 to 64) adults, which is another way of saying that most of the young adults have left. The town's population is roughly half white and half black, with a smattering of other ethnicities.
So that's Woodland. Like many American small towns, it's not doing very well.
Woodland doesn't want to slip passively beneath a wave of solar farms
The distress came through in the original story:
Mary Hobbs has been living in Woodland for 50 years and said she has watched it slowly becoming a ghost town with no job opportunities for young people.
Bobby Mann said he saw "communities dry up when I-95 came along." He voiced the fear that eats at every middle-aged resident of a rural small town: "All the young people are going to move out."
Poor and working-class Americans are acutely aware of the distance between the American dream they learned about growing up and the grim realities around them. Some of them conclude that the system has been corrupted, that the America they knew has been reshaped by powerful people with "hidden agendas." Lack of trust breeds conspiracy theories, like solar panels preventing photosynthesis.
But even for those who don't believe in dark conspiracies, the solar panels popping up around town represent larger social and economic changes that always seem to be benefiting someone else.
And here's the thing: In this case, they're not wrong. Solar farms are colonizing the land around them, but residents play no part in it and get nothing out of it. Another part of the original story that didn't get much play:
The town would not benefit, from a tax base standpoint, from the solar farms because they are not located within the town limits, but only in the extraterritorial sections.
The only funding the town would get is approximately $7,000 per year for specialized training for the Woodland Fire Department in the event of an electrical malfunction at the solar plant.
The power generated would go directly into the electrical grid and would not reduce Woodland’s power bills.
There's nothing in it for the people of Woodland.
It's easy to mock goofy and irrational of fears about solar farms, but they are only an expression of deeper anxieties. The land that Woodland is being asked to rezone is currently zoned residential and agricultural. Rezoning it to allow solar panels amounts to admitting that it's currently going to waste. People aren't going to be living or farming there. The town is not going to grow — not now, not any time soon.
"How would you and your family like to live in the middle of a solar farm, surrounded on all four sides?" said [Woodland town council member Ron] Lane, a retired elementary school principal. "We have approved three solar farms on almost three points of the compass. This would have completely boxed the town in with solar farms."
The land around the town, once its future, is being industrialized by a company from Somewhere Else, for the profits and benefits of people Somewhere Else, as Woodland continues to struggle. It's not hard to understand the angst, or why, despite pleas from the solar company (Strata), the Woodland town council not only blocked the farm, but voted through a moratorium on future farms.
(FYI: the mayor of Woodland has posted a response to the hubbub. It's quite reasonable.)
How can episodes like Woodland be prevented?
The Woodland episode is not just a random outbreak of nuttiness that got exaggerated by the press. It is in fact quite representative, the intersection of two accelerating trends.
One is the spread of clean energy. Where fossil-fuel power was centralized in enormous, remote power plants, wind and solar power tend to be spread out. That means, as a simple matter of geography, they are going to touch more communities.
Second is the global trend of urbanization, which is leaving more and more small towns bereft, the tax base shrinking, the aging populace resentful toward modernity.
As clean energy spreads, it's going to bump up against more and more such towns, and clashes like the one in Woodland are only going to get more common. They are already endemic in the UK and across much of the EU, but it's happening in the US too — in Massachusetts, California, Michigan, Colorado, and elsewhere. Here's another example from just down the road in North Carolina, last year.
But the outcome is not inevitable.
Many voices in the industry urge renewable energy industries to do better, more proactive PR, and there's something to that. But PR can only do so much. One clear result from both studies and experience is that local communities are more amenable to renewable energy when they have some financial stake in it, some sense of ownership and benefit. (John Farrell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance is great on this stuff.)
For projects where there is some sort of "benefit sharing," where the community has some stake in the success of the project, NIMBY complaints all but disappear. This is one reason why renewable energy has spread so fast, and enjoys such enormous public support, in Germany: fully half the country's renewable energy is owned by individuals and co-ops, not big companies or utilities. (In Denmark, 75 percent of wind power is owned by citizen cooperatives.)
This isn't the place to get too deep into benefit-sharing, but here, from an old EU report (that is apparently no longer online), is a list of benefit-sharing mechanisms:
1. Community Funds: the local developer provides funds which are at the disposal of the community for common projects or lowering local taxes. These funds are either paid directly into a community fund or collected indirectly through local taxes by the municipality. The use of the funds is managed either by the community or the municipality.
2. Local (Co-)Ownership: the developer grants or offers shares in the project to the local community.
3. Compensation: the developer compensates for possible damages such as ecological damages (e.g. by creating a new habitat for species endangered by the development).
4. Benefits-in-kind: the developer creates improvements to the community, usually during the construction phase.
5. Local Employment: local employment is prioritised the construction phase and/or in the operation phase.
6. Local Contracting: local business are awarded contracts or involved in the development.
7. Energy Price Reduction for the Local Community: the local community is granted the opportunity to either consume energy directly from the development at a discount or to purchase energy at lower prices.
8. Indirect Social Benefits: any other benefit accruing to the community which is not directly quantifiable such as prestige, eco-tourism, knowledge etc.
What if Strata, as part of its proposal for another solar farm outside of Woodland, had pledged to power Woodland itself with cheap solar power? What if it had pledged to train and employ Woodland residents to maintain and manage the solar farms? What if it had offered citizens of Woodland the chance to purchase a small ownership stake in the farm?
Any of these benefit-sharing initiatives could have muted, if not eliminated, the opposition to solar farms in Woodland. And they would have been cheaper for Strata — certainly cheaper than not getting to build on this prime piece of land at all.
The cure for NIMYism is energy democracy
For my part, I can't resist a few jokes at the expense of a retired science teacher who thinks solar panels are going to steal sunlight from plants. It's funny! People believe some crazy shit.
But mock or don't mock, the important thing is to understand. It's not kooky beliefs driving Woodland's opposition to solar farms, it's the entirely valid perception that they are getting nothing out of the industrialization of their land — that, at least for now, renewable energy is just one more face of a contemporary world that has devalued and forgotten them.
If you want to satisfy Woodland's concerns about solar power — and the concerns of many more small towns and rural areas to come — don't focus on photosynthesis or cancer or any of the other inarticulate expressions of anxiety. Cut them in on some of the benefits of the clean-energy economy.
This model of local ownership is known informally as "energy democracy." The declining cost of small-scale, distributed renewable energy, along with the flourishing of new forms of ownership like community wind, has created an enormous opportunity to put more of the benefits of energy into the hands of ordinary Americans.
Advocates for energy democracy are often dismissed as idealists, fixated on a quest orthogonal to the more important goal of reducing emissions. But episodes like Woodland show that energy democracy may be a necessary prerequisite to scaling up renewable energy.
Correction the First: Woodland is in northeast North Carolina, not northwest as originally stated. You can tell by, uh, looking at the map immediately below that sentence. D'oh!
Correction the Second: Originally the post said the Woodland unemployment rate is "30 percent, 20 percent higher than the national average." That was from this site, but it's clearly misleading, counting all not-employed people as unemployed. City-Data.com says the unemployment rate in Woodland is 13.1% — strikingly higher for blacks than for whites — but it's not clear where it's drawing that data from. FRED draws data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is probably the most reliable, but it only goes to the county level. According to FRED, Northampton County, which contains Woodland, has an unemployment rate hovering around 8 percent. Long story short, getting granular, town-level unemployment data is an unholy pain in the ass. And since it doesn't materially affect the point of the post, I'll just leave it as "higher than average."